Bioinformatics: If you follow information about technology, you must have already come across the word “bioinformatics”. A combination of two well-known words: bio, which means life, and informatics, a term that represents the set of sciences dedicated to the processing of data and information through the use of computers. However, in practice, what in fact is bioinformatics, what is it for and why is it important today?
More specifically, bioinformatics could be defined as an area that uses knowledge from different disciplines, such as computer science, biology, medicine, mathematics and statistics. Bioinformatics emerged in the 1960s, from the use of the first computers to store and process data generated in cell research centers. But it was the enormous amount of information generated in the Human Genome Project, through new DNA sequencers, that boosted the development of bioinformatics.
Over the past 20 years, this huge amount of biological data has created a demand for the development of new computer programs capable of transforming information into knowledge. This is how the development and expansion of bioinformatics took place. However, those who think of bioinformatics as an area restricted to the academic world are mistaken. Currently, bioinformatics makes daily contributions to our daily lives and we don’t even notice. I will cite some examples.
Today, agribusiness is one of the foundations of the economy and social development. We talk every day about food production, animal and vegetable protein, sustainable production of wood and components for the pharmaceutical industry. Through bioinformatics tools, combined with molecular biology techniques, the genetic improvement of plants and animals has been extraordinary. These animals and plants, once adapted to climate and soil conditions, are largely responsible for the enormous increase in our agricultural productivity, producing more protein in the same space and at a lower cost.
They are monocultures with new micronutrients, more productive and able to survive drought, insect attacks and diseases. We have several examples of the use of bioinformatics to help the creation of tomatoes with a longer shelf life, and in rice varieties capable of producing a higher level of iron and vitamin A, reducing diseases caused by the deficiency of these nutrients. None of these innovations could have been generated without the use of bioinformatics to discover the genetic factors involved in this improvement.
Bioinformatics, together with DNA sequencing, has been causing a real revolution in several areas of medicine. This tool is used to analyze each patient’s genome sequencing and determine their genetic profile, which helps the physician to predict greater or lesser susceptibility to certain diseases. This helps in the indication of personalized treatments for each patient, with the appropriate dose, reducing the chances of ineffective therapies with side effects (this was the theme of the article on precision medicine, discussed here in the July 20th text).
Bioinformatics is also widely used to analyze genetic data and associate them with the risk of certain diseases or the severity with which they manifest themselves (so-called risk or prognostic biomarkers). Such advances are being of great importance for the development of the so-called P4 Medicine, a revolutionary branch of medicine that aims to Predict, Prevent, Customize and make the patient Participate in their treatment.
Bioinformatics was essential for the study, detection and development of new vaccines against the new coronavirus, the SARs-CoV-2. With the help of bioinformatics tools, scientists around the world are investigating viral evolution in record time, tracking new variants and making mathematical models that help to understand the evolution of the pandemic. For example, bioinformatics tools were used to quickly create molecular tests capable of specifically identifying SARS-CoV-2. More importantly, RNA vaccines were also developed relying on bioinformatics tools that were able to choose the best molecular targets in the new coronavirus.
But, as in many areas of knowledge, the world has a shortage of professionals with solid training in bioinformatics. As it is a multidisciplinary area, which brings together diverse knowledge, bioinformatics requires a broad education and, today, we do not have undergraduate courses in the major universities in the world. The trajectory of such professionals begins with graduation in areas related to biology or information technology. In graduate school, these professionals receive additional training in other areas. It is often in the postdoctoral program where the bioinformatics professional will have the necessary practical experience.